Roman Portus Victoriae Iuliobrigensium
A short visit to another of the cities I have less travelled too, however good enough to be back after probably 7 years if not more since the last time. Although we planned this weekend for visiting Burgos and Atapuerca, we actually ended up with enough time to head back to Santander from where our plane would depart later at night to London, and enjoy a stroll remembering the beautiful and elegant capital city of the autonomous community of Cantabria in northern Spain, right by the Atlantic coast (the Cantabrian Sea).
Not only that we had a nice time in Santander, but also stopped along the way from Burgos at the birthplace of the River Ebro in Fontibre. That was truly unique to be honest, or at least for myself. I’ve never seen before the very beginning of an important river as Ebro is, and it is actually shocking how this all happens. From that tiny river with water coming from under the earth, to what then becomes the second largest river to flow in the Iberian Peninsula and its large delta by the Mediterranean coast at Amposta, Tarragona.
When visiting Santander, however, it is highly unlikely you will be coming here to Fontibre unless you are doing a bigger tour through Cantabria or northern Spain, but hey, if you are on your way to/from Burgos or other places in norther Spain and you have the chance, do not hesitate in sliding off the motorway, it is less than 5 minutes on the national road.
Now back to Santander the city, what this guide is about. It is considered as one of the most elegant along the Spanish Atlantic coast, yet not to compare with the extreme elegance and posh San Sebastian. There was unfortunately a big fire that engulfed most of the once almost intact historic quarter to rubble. Just few buildings were spared, with the Cathedral needing to be rebuilt and so all the buildings around it. Even the City Hall is new although following its historicist design. What came as a terrible part of the city’s history, then came a rebuilt following a great urbanism of streets on a grid, wide avenues. great promenades along the port and beaches and all aligned by the traditional stone buildings with their characteristic and charming wooden balconies. So while the old town is very small, limited only to the Cathedral area, the rest of the city is a great sight on its own.
Through centuries Santander was the favoured summer residence of the kings. King Alfonso XIII built the impressive Palacio de la Magdalena as the residence of the royal family during their holidays, and it is a rare piece of Victorian architecture in a country where such style is non-existent. But if you have the chance for touring across Cantabria region then you will be surprised to find that many mansions of Georgian and Victorian architecture! This is an unique fact found only in this part of Spain.
So the good news, the city can be completely visited in a day. There’s no need to plan any extra time solely for the city, yet including the countless historical villages nearby this could easily take you many days extra to enjoy. Saying this, if you are coming for a weekend to Santander, I do strongly recommend to also include any village to the west of the city such as: Suance, Santillana del Mar, Comillas and San Vicente de la Barquera; all of them along the coast except Santillana del Mar which does not have access to the sea. In Comillas, if you did not know, you can find one of the very few masterpieces that world famed architect Antoni Gaudi created outside Barcelona, known as “El Capricho”.
When in search for food, that’s another of the highlights in the region. Not only you will find great places almost everywhere, all of them have a great menu, large portions and high quality for really good prices. As usual, tapas here and there is the most common if you like to try something different than a proper menu at one place. Anywhere on the small streets parallel to Paseo de Pereda is full of bars and restaurants.
For more information about Santander check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Spain’s currency is the Euro (EUR). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Santander
- Train Stations On the west of the city you can find both the National Railway (RENFE) and the State Railway (FEVE) companies side by side, with the small Sotileza Park in the northern side.
- City Hall Square Couple of streets northeast from the train stations. The buildings all round were built after the fire therefore more austere yet very elegant.
-City Hall Built in the 19th century in eclectic style is the centrepiece of the square.
- Jesus de Monasterio Square It is the continuation to the west of City Hall Square. Also surrounded by beautiful buildings.
- Calle Rubio Running parallel to both City Hall and Jesus de Monasterio squares is one of the nicest pedestrian streets in Santander, retaining some old buildings not destroyed in the big fire.
-Menéndez Pelayo Library The biggest and most important in the Cantabria region housed in a classical building front he 18th century.
-Beaux-Arts Museum Side by side with the Library completes this great architectural landmark.
- Esperanza Square At the other side of the City Hall Square, where the City Hall itself shares the facade as well.
-Central Market Really nice piece or art-nouveau architecture, in the middle of the square.
-St Francisco Church At one of the square ends. A great picture of the entire square, market and church is from the opposite end to the church itself.
- Atarazanas Square (Shipyards Square) The heart of the former old town, almost entirely destroyed after the great fire of the city. The rebuild took in consideration the elegance of the building design, and so was reconstructed the Cathedral.
-Central Post Office Built in 1915, occupies an entire side of the square itself.
-Cathedral One of the oldest buildings in the city. Majority of it needed to be rebuilt after the great fire. Do come inside and onto the cloister from where you can get a great view of its towers and garden inside.
-Bank of Spain At one of the corners of the square almost behind the Cathedral, has its main facade over the Pereda Gardens.
- Alfonso XIII Square and Pereda Gardens Side by side with the Central Post Office and Cathedral, is been recently revamped to a beautiful landscaped gardens with water features reaching the promenade by the sea, and at the opposite side the Plaza Porticada.
- Paseo de Pereda Starting at Pereda Gardens is the first of the promenades by the sea for what Santander is famous for. With plenty of elegant buildings with their typical wooden balconies, hotels, mansions and palaces. In the 5 parallel streets behind you will find the remaining of the “old town”.
-Plaza Porticada The next square in importance, very near the Cathedral at the very beginning of Paseo de Pereda was built as the new town centre after the 1941 great fire. It follows the pattern as every major city in Spain with a central square.
-Santander Bank Headquarters The most recognisable building of them all with its arch interconnecting both buildings. No need to say it’s the home of one of the largest banks in the world.
-Stone Crane Left as a reminder of the former shipyards in this area, the oldest crane remaining. Opposite the Banco Santander by the sea.
-Palacete del Embarcadero Few meters ahead from the Stone Crane, was originally conceived as a customs office built in the “Belle-Epoque” times of the city. Nowadays a small exhibition hall.
- El Arrabal Leaving the Plaza Porticada by the eastern exit you reach this few narrow streets with nice architecture, the small Padre Rabago Square and the Sacred Heart Church in that square.
- Hernan Cortes Street The most important street along the “old town” starting on the eastern access to Plaza Porticada. Some of the finest buildings are along it, with plenty of restaurants and bars.
-Eastern Market Converted to a food court is great for the big selection of nice places to eat coupled with delicatessen shops.
-Former Banco Banesto Building One of the most elegant in this part of the city, saved by the fire.
-Pombo Square This rectangular open space was also created after the fire and is the last of the large squares along the old town.
-St Lucia Church A street north from Pombo Square, in classic style.
- Paseo de Castelar The next promenade following after Paseo de Pereda is entirely aligned with the sporting port and again, the traditional buildings with their wooden balconies.
-Matias Montero Roundabout The linking of both Paseo de Pereda and Castelar has large mansions aligning both corners and the sea and port at the other.
-Festival Hall of Cantabria At the very end of Paseo de Castelar right by the old shipyards. Completed in 1991 it is still a great piece of contemporary architecture that seems not toe get old. Built by Spanish famous architect Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza,
-Gamazo Dock Dating from 1908, nowadays not in use and left empty as a monument. In the same former dock area, a new promenade was built with great design of lamp posts where to get great views of the outer harbour and the city.
- Los Peligros and La Magdalena Beach Farther east after Paseo de Castelar you reach the first of the city’s beaches, leading towards the rocky Magdalena Peninsula.
-Hotel Real One of the historic top hotels in the city. Opened in 1917 in eclectic style designed by the architect González de Riancho. Nowadays it belongs to the Eurostars chain.
-Botín Residence As expected, one of the richest families in the planet, from the (now dead) founder of Banco Santander are the owners of one of the most sumptuous palaces in the city, overlooking the sea. The house was originally built for Don Adolfo Pardo in 1915 in mountain style by Gonzalez de Riancho, the same architect as Hotel Real.
- La Magdalena Palace This spectacular mansion built by architect González de Riancho in 1912 for King Alfonso XIII and his family as their summer residence is one of the unmissable highlights in Santander. It combines some architectural styles as eclectic, English and French, being that Victorian touch what makes it characteristic.
- El Sardinero Beach The main and largest beach of Santander lies along the eastern end of the city, north from La Magdalena Peninsula. Here you can admire some impressive mansions and palaces, and top of the class hotels.
-Grand Casino Another of the city’s symbols, designed by architect Eloy Martínez del Valle in 1916 in neo-classical and modernist style on the site of the previous casino that burnt down
-Hotel Sardinero Opposite the Grand Casino, with a landscaped gardens in between both buildings, completes this stunning architectural spot.
Santander Parayas Airport is very near the city, less than 5 km to the main bus station in the heart of the city, just across from both train stations. Frequent buses connect in both directions for 2.50 Euros single tickets. While there are not too many air routes from the airport, it is of modest size having a good coverage of national destinations and some across Europe which gets enhanced during the summer months. The main routes to London, Paris, Rome or Berlin are basic core and after all, some of the most important.
Other much larger airport in traffic is Bilbao. At 109km east from Santander is a great option that compliments Santander. Bilbao does offer a much bigger and stronger air route network, with some intercontinental routes.
Coming overland from other cities in Spain is easy by train and bus. The city will soon in the future be connected by the high-speed line to Madrid, but for now its over 4 hours. Santander is an important port city and transportation node in northern Spain, therefore it’s quite straightforward to get on a train to anywhere in the country but for farther destinations along the Mediterranean coast expect long travel times. The same applies to the long distance buses, You can get to any capital of province in Spain from Santander. By ferry (passenger and car/lorry) the city is year-round linked to Portsmouth and Plymouth in the south if England; it’s an overnight trip departing int he afternoon Santander and arriving in England the following morning.
Within the city there are only public buses and commuter trains from both the Spanish National Railway Network (RENFE) and the State Railways (FEVE). The later is a narrow railway network of Northern Spain and extends through the entire Cantabria region linking many small villages and communities west towards Asturias autonomous regions and east towards Bilbao. Anything around the old town and El Sardinero Beach farther north of the city is easy to walk everywhere. Although distances can be a bit long from corer to corner, it’s a nice walk through and the best way to enjoy the city and all of its sights. But getting on a bus from the main promenade to La Magdalena Palace is as easy as waiting couple of minutes for the next bus to come.
Santander is one of the most expensive cities in Spain with regards to accommodation. It does attracts other kind of tourism more orientated to soaking into culture, traditions, local food and the local people rather than the usual sun and beach destinations. Finding a good deal is hard, and unless you are willing to stay farther outside of the city at the many rural houses, airb&b and bed & breakfasts, then expect to spend higher than other destinations.
As for the three times I’ve been to the city I’ve never been in the need to stay at a hotel since these were day trips from Bilbao with the family, or when we stayed in nearby Torrelavega at a friend’s flat, in this case is the same since our base was in Burgos, our main destination on this weekend.
For a Burgos travel guide please check here, whilst for the place we stayed in that city, this are some brief notes. We stayed at the Hotel Los Braseros, in Calle Severo Ochoa, 7, at the northeast outside of the historic old town. We chose this hotel on purpose on the outskirts as we had a car, so definitely there is nothing wrong to say about its location, we knew we will be using the car to get to the centre of the city and elsewhere. We wanted to have a relaxed weekend after pretty much exhausting ourselves sightseeing during the day, however this was not the case. The room was extremely outdated, not cared at all although they are refurbishing the rooms as we could see pretty newer ones. The bed was super uncomfortable and upon every move, the bedhead was touching the wall and making noise. That turned up into the room next to ours having “some fun” in the bed not once but 5 times. It was 4am until we started kicking very loud the walls for them to take notice. Not only they were absolutely careless about any other hotel guests, the walls of the hotel seem to be made of paper so you can hear every little thing. The shower was broken, half the water was running through the broken tube without reaching the shower-top. Staff was very nice and friend, and so was the breakfast, simple yet good. It could have been a good hotel, but it failed on the basis, providing a nice and relaxed rest, so we ended up pretty much deadly tired. If you have the choice then I would recommend to get another one, otherwise make sure to request a refurbished room.